Meet Karl Marx: The Hopeless Romantic

“When I return from distant places To that dear home, filled with desire, A spouse holds you in his embraces, And clasps you proudly, Fairest One. Then o’er me rolls the lightning’s fire Of misery and oblivion” – Karl Marx, 1836.

Dying for The Context behind Marx’s jealous love poem to his childhood sweetheart?

Marx is remembered for his groundbreaking philosophies that he published in the 1848 pamphlet The Communist Manifesto and the three-volume Das Kapital. These works have since impacted subsequent intellectual, economic, and political histories. However, negligible light has been thrown on the person that young, nineteen-year-old Marx was, who wrote to considerable depths on subjects suiting the raging hormones of a young adult while holding traces of the philosophies that were to dominate his adult works.

In order to examine the poetry written by Marx, there is no perspective more apt to adopt than that of Marxists themselves. Since in Marxist aesthetics it is believed that literature is a social institution which results as the product of a particular history of a certain society, then by grasping the forms, styles, and meanings of a particular work, one can analyze the class constructs and political tendencies demonstrated in Marx’s literature. For instance, in Sakharam Binder, the iconic yet controversial play by Vijay Tendulkar, Marxist criticism would point out the deviant nature of the protagonist in his lower-class social strata, inquire into what political inclinations Sakharam Binder may have possessed, and analyze the context in which the play was influenced. Therefore, essentially, Marxists believe that literary creation is a result of both subjective inspiration and the objective influence of the writer’s surroundings; both of which, when it comes to Marx’s own poetry, are of great interest.

The young Marx was a hopeless romantic. While studying law at the University of Berlin in 1836, he fell in love with the sister of his school friend from his hometown Trier, Jenny von Westphalen. The following is an excerpt from Marx’s ‘Concluding Sonnets to Jenny’ – a set of three poems that he sent her in the form of a letter, among many other such letters.

“To me, no Fame terrestrial

That travels far through land and nation

To hold them thrillingly in thrall

With its far-flung reverberation

Is worth your eyes, when shining full,

Your heart, when warm with exultation,

Or two deep-welling tears that fall,

Wrung from your eyes by song’s emotion.”

In this exceedingly personal expression of Marx’s love for Jenny, Marx employs several hyperboles to highlight what it is about her that attracts him, such as valuing her shining eyes to be worth more than worldwide renown.

“Gladly I’d breathe my Soul away

In the Lyre’s deep melodious sighs,

And would a very Master die,

Could I the exalted goal attain,

Could I but win the fairest prize – to soothe in you both joy and pain.”

He also expresses his poetic willingness to ‘breathe his soul away’ in exchange for ‘the fairest prize.’ Invariably, it is this prize that catches one’s attention the most, since it clearly alludes to Marx’s wish to have sexual intercourse – the only act that incorporates the union of pain and pleasure – with Jenny. Considering Marx’s background of being a Bourgeois Jew from a predominantly Catholic city within a country whose official religion was evangelical Protestantism, his liberal approach to discussing sex, although subtle, marks the start of a journey which led him to be an atheistic, stateless man. On that journey, Marx would be accompanied by Jenny, who had fallen for Marx and his eloquent letters and would subsequently marry him in 1843.

Considering the alternative themes Marx dabbled in, it can be speculated that either Jenny shared his sense of humor, or she never read the following poem. Marx used his proficiency with language to write about absurd subjects which remain humorous to this day. In a poem titled, ‘On a Certain Bald Head,’ he quite literally elaborates on a certain bald head that may have held considerable significance in Marx’s life to warrant such a piece.

“As lightning born of radiancy

Sparkles from cloud-realms far away,

Pallas Athena victorious

Sprang from the thought-filled head of Zeus.

Even so, in sportiveness unbounded,

On to his head she’s likewise bounded,

And what in depth he could never plumb

Visibly shines on his cranium.”

As mentioned briefly under subjective criticism, there is evidence in his poems of discrepancies between Marx’s liberal mindset and his city’s conservative Catholic one. This point is further justified by Marx’s theory of  historical materialism.1 Marx himself is the quintessential proof of his theory, since he believed that his role was to instigate 19th century society against proletariats for oppressing the bourgeois. In order to achieve this goal, he embodied all those ideas that mainstream society considered unconventional. However, with unconventional ideas came conflicting ones.

Consequently, Marx’s poetry was not confined to the concepts of love, longing, or jealousy. In addition to the aforementioned devices, he notably threw in hints of his megalomania and thirst for destruction. In the piece titled ‘Feelings,’ he resorts to two such allusions:

“Heaven I would comprehend
I would draw the world to me;
Living, hating, I intend
That my star shine brilliantly,” and

“Worlds I would destroy forever,
Since I can create no world;
Since my call they notice never.”

Notwithstanding these deviances, the fact remains that Marx had begun ideating his theories of class struggles very early in life. Perhaps the ideal example of this lies in a soliloquy from Marx’s poetic drama, Oulanem, a Tragedy, also written in his youth. Delivered by the protagonist, Oulanem, it revolves around the idea of what was then called ‘the tragedy of fate.’2

“…the leaden world holds us fast,

And we are chained, shattered, empty, frightened,

Eternally chained to this marble block of Being…

and we –

We are the apes of a cold God.”

What inclines one to interpret these lines as a metaphor of the working class’ struggles against the capitalists is their similarity with one of the most famous rallying cries from Marx’s Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.”

Marx’s biographer, Robert Payne, suggested that ‘the young Marx was passionately devoted to poetry, and took himself very seriously as a poet.’3 In spite of this, few scholars have analyzed Marx’s romantic poems in the context of his developing thought, secluding the poems to interested biographers. A deeper investigation into these poems holds imperative in obtaining fresh insight into the idea that was Marxism.


  1. All of Marx’s poems:

– Author: Aayush Agarwal


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